A Beginner’s Guide to the Marx Brothers
When it comes to comedy, I can be very picky. I love to laugh, but it all depends on the right kind. I’m not the biggest fan of crude humour, and even stand-up has to have just the right kind of jokes. Fortunately, just about any film by the Marx Brothers has the potential to make me smile.
Most people of this generation haven’t got a clue who the Marx Brothers are, and if they do, it’s only because it sounds sort of familiar. This is probably because they have seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Henry Jones Sr., upon seeing that his son has brought the diary back to him, claims that he “should have sent it to the Marx Brothers”. My job today is to introduce you to one of the greatest comedy teams ever. Whether you decide to check them out or not is completely up to you, but I have to tell you: if you’re looking for slapstick, wit and jokes with humorous accents all rolled into one, then you’ve come to the right place.
The Marx Brothers are, in fact, all brothers. There were five of them, but only four of them were actors. Although they were all born with typical names, they were given nicknames during their time on the vaudeville stage, and the names eventually stuck. Because they were also born into a musical entertainment family, each boy had a musical talent of some kind. Only three appear in all of the films, and all in comedic roles (Zeppo, one of the brothers, played the romantic straight man in four of their films before quitting)
Julius “Groucho” Marx: Often considered to be the ringleader of the group, Groucho Marx was known for his witty, dry, and occasionally sarcastic humour. Coming up with great one-liners like “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others” and “Time flies like an arrow… Fruit flies like a banana”, the man was easily recognizable with his glasses and exaggerated greasepaint moustache and eyebrows. He had been known to play the ukelele, and performed part of a song in Horse Feathers.
Leonard “Chico” Marx: Said to be the brother that chased all the ‘chicks’ around, Chico’s comedy relied on his Italian accent. This was especially entertaining because his father was French and his mother was German. Because of how popular his accent and the comedic bit that went with it became, the accent stuck. It was this accent that allowed for many humorous miscommunications between Chico and Groucho. Chico was also an expert piano player, and is prominently featured performing in most of the Marx Brothers films.
Adolph “Harpo” Marx: The silent one, Harpo was known for saying, well, nothing. When one reviewer commented during their vaudeville routines that Harpo was funnier silent than he was speaking, Harpo decided to make it permanent. Named after the harp that he frequently played and always appearing with a curly wig, Harpo was the most musically talented of the brothers. It’s said that he could play seven instruments, and plays the piano alongside Chico in at least two films. Harpo contributes the majority of the slapstick, using exaggerated facial expressions, horns and whistles to communicate in film.
There’s some debate as to how many films the Marx Brothers actually did. There were five major films that featured four of the brothers (including Zeppo): The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. The last of these is considered to be one of the funniest movies ever released. After Zeppo left, the three boys went on to do another bunch of films: A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca.
Also frequently featured in their films was Margaret Dumont, an older female actress who played the straight woman. She always played a wealthy but oblivious woman, and was often intended to be the foil and romantic interest to Groucho. It’s said that while she pretended not to understand the jokes, this was closer to the truth. Often times, she didn’t get Groucho’s humour and simply allowed her confusion to be portrayed honestly on screen.
If you’ve never seen a Marx Brothers film before, I would start with A Night at the Opera. It has all of the classic elements of comedy, plus a fantastic musical number that allows you to see the boys’ talents. Because of the popularity of Duck Soup, that was the film I watched first. While parts of it were funny, I didn’t find it hilarious. Going from that to Duck Soup was like going from a single stand-up comic to a comedy festival. Although the films that feature the trio exclusively are still enjoyable, the better films are the ones they did as a group of four (the only exception to which is A Day at the Races).
If you think they might be something to check out, just visit Youtube and type in “Marx Brothers scene”. You’ll come up with countless options and I guarantee you’ll find something to make you smile.